NIDDK's Bob MacKinnon Retires
By Anna Maria Gillis
Bob MacKinnon wants you to pay more attention to your money. Too many people don't know what they're entitled to when it comes to health and retirement benefits, says MacKinnon, who has spent much of his federal career teaching people about their benefits.
Now, NIH's guru of all benefits matters, both arcane and practical, is retiring himself. Well, sort of.
Officially, MacKinnon's last day was Jan. 3, but he's chosen to have "5-day weekends" to play golf and tennis and maybe work in a soup kitchen and to enjoy his retirement house in Ocean Pines, near Ocean City. Tuesdays and Wednesdays he is on campus as a consultant to help NIH human resources staff deal with some of the more complicated retirement and health benefits questions they face.
At MacKinnon's retirement party, Barbara Merchant, NIDDK executive officer, laughed, saying "many of the people Bob counseled are rich and happy on the beach."
"Rich might be an overstatement," says Syd Carter, director of NIDDK's Office of Human Resource Management, "but Bob helped many people retire with more money than they expected."
MacKinnon began crunching numbers for the government in 1969. He started as a claims examiner for the U.S. Civil Service Commission, predecessor of the Office of Personnel Management, without having a formal interview with his first boss. After dropping out of a doctoral program in Russian literature at the University of Colorado, "I took the [civil service] test at the post office, got a good grade, and a few letters and interviews," says MacKinnon.
Optimistic about his prospects, he moved to Washington and pounded the pavement until he arrived at the government's Job Information Service late one Friday afternoon. The woman at the desk looked at his application, looked at him and his five o'clock shadow, and asked whether he was good at math. MacKinnon had been an accounting major before a 3-year Army hitch took him into the Army's Security Agency and language school. She picked up the phone to make a quick call. When she got off, "she told me I'd start on Monday, and that men in the government come to work clean-shaven and wearing coats and ties," says MacKinnon.
Eventually, he moved into benefits policy for OPM before moving to NIH in 1988. Because MacKinnon had worked at OPM, he was the perfect person to do benefits at NIH, says Carter.
NIH has so many employee categories, and there are various sources of retirement annuities CSRS, CSRS Offset, FERS, Thrift Savings, and Social Security that it can be difficult to calculate what people will receive, particularly for those who have worked under both the CSRS and FERS retirement systems. "Bob was especially effective with people who left the government, returned later, and had to decide which retirement system would provide a larger annuity in the end," says Carter, who considers MacKinnon the consummate civil servant: honest, hard-working, modest and patient. "He'd maintain his composure and solve problems even for employees who showed up with complicated problems at 4:30 p.m. on the last day of open season."
Human resources staff all over NIH called MacKinnon when they got stuck wading through the government's rules. "It can be tough counseling people because you can't bend the rules," says MacKinnon. "It's sad when you have to tell people that they can't do something." But he's always tried to give people alternatives by helping them figure out how and when it was most advantageous to end their federal careers.
"It has never been the grade or salary that motivated me. What I got was the satisfaction of helping people. Their benefits and retirement are important to them," says MacKinnon. Although some people have been "hard to please," he said the job made him think and do research constantly. "It gave me a chance to do what I do well."
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